We are all cyborgs. Donna Haraway’s cyborgs in 1991 were at the blurred intersection of ‘human’ and ‘machine’, a hybrid of machine and organism, creatures of social reality and fiction, both our ontology and political, due to our interactions with technologies. In time, however, we have become more of a “cyborg update”, an amalgamation of individuals and data, of databases and bodies. Google’s reCAPTCHA service to help distinguish between humans and bots is a great example of this. Our humanness is no longer presumed on the Internet and is attributed to us through the performance of certain tasks like pattern recognition tests. In the context of the Internet, one is not born a human, rather one is attributed human through the computational means of differentiation between humans and machines. If one fails the reCAPTCHA test, one is excluded from this imagination of the human.
‘Cradle to grave’ databasing
An exaggerated account of this cyborg-ian reality is most evident in India, where the state (colonial and post-colonial) has been obsessed with enumerating the population for effective governance. In the past 15 years, the country has become home to the world’s largest biometric identification programme — ‘Aadhaar’ which bestows over a billion people with a ‘unique’ 12-digit number that connects to a database containing their biometric details, which is then used to authenticate their identity for claiming welfare and other services from the state.
While it originally began in 2009 to enable direct cash transfers to beneficiaries, intending to root out corruption and discretionary action, today, it is being used almost ubiquitously by both state and non-state entities for all kinds of service provision and entitlements, and creating a state that seems unable to govern without enumerating and databasing its population. Aadhaar has become a key part of this “cradle to grave” envisioning of the national digital identity project within the larger ‘Digital India’ program. Maintenance of accurate Aadhaar data is now the cornerstone for accessing any modern state and non-state service, and securing a “smooth digital experience” as a citizen.
In this data-based universe, the citizenry is imagined as cyborgs with unique numeric identities, endlessly online, hyper-connected, digitally responsive subjects, represented perfectly within the national identity database and willing to be verified as authentic at any instant for claiming any state welfare. The creation of the cyborg may not necessarily be a bad thing. Blurring of boundaries as Haraway suggested, might lead to more complex, heterogenous notions of identity and feminism. But the trouble starts when the cyborg becomes the “illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism”.
This observation is even more urgent in the past few weeks when the country has witnessed the horror of state-sponsored murders, public lynching of minority groups and progressively increasing violence. In Manipur, which has been in the throes of extreme violence since May this year due to clashes between the Kuki and Meitei tribes, two women were sexually assaulted and paraded naked. The mob responsible for the atrocity was seen to ask the women for their Aadhaar cards, to verify who they were. When they failed to produce their cards, they were dragged off and molested, because the men did not believe who they were claiming to be, without the production of the card. The cyborg-ian reality for these women was tied up in the enormous public faith in this card.
In August, a Muslim-majority district in Haryana witnessed communal clashes and bulldozing of over 300 Muslim homes by state authorities. In many such cases, despite people having lived for decades in the area and possessing a plethora of identity documents, including voter ID cards, ration cards, and Aadhaar cards, are interrogated, detained, and have their houses demolished by state authorities, who use interrogation of these identity documents as justifiable cause.
This is particularly true for vulnerable communities like the Rohingya Muslims who despite featuring in the national identity database legitimately, since Aadhaar is based on residency, and not citizenship, are routinely hauled up for ‘fraudulently’ acquiring Aadhaar cards. As per a right-wing magazine report, state authorities intent to investigate the process by which over 2,000 Rohingyas in Haryana have acquired their Aadhaar cards.
Therefore, despite the state’s claims of determinacy and accuracy, the cyborg-ian identity in reality is not an incontrovertible truth. It ultimately remains contestable in a Kafka-esque nightmare of vague legality and administrative processes. The indubitable cyborg-ian creature that can peacefully live in its house without the fear of its home being razed to the ground, or murdered, therefore rests almost exclusively on state patronage.
The antithetical to this – the ‘ideal cyborg’ then must be the inverse, a party to what Haraway called the “informatics of domination”, which insists that everyone participate in the big data project, and offer up all data generated in our everyday lives to help contribute to scientific advancement, and innovation. It is the responsibility then of good citizens to assist in data gathering and collection, and in databasing attempts for “nation-building”.
This encoding of the ideal cyborg underlies most of the state’s attempts at legislating databasing and enumeration of the citizenry; also encoding into laws what it means to survive in the country today as a less-than-ideal cyborg.
Empire of empiricism
The Indian state’s obsession with enumeration and encoding bodies has its roots in colonial India. The British colonial government pioneered in adopting statistical classification practices to map ‘truths’, ‘facts’, and ‘knowledge’ of conquered lands and peoples. Over time, this method of historicity expanded to the rest of the world with the expansion of the British Empire. The formation of the Statistical Committee in 1862, the Statistical Bureau in 1895, and the conduct of the first Population Census in 1881 and then again in 1891, are all examples of the administration attempting to understand the polity in numerical units.
The colonial state also believed in the scientific accuracy and incontestable truth of numbers. This is evident in the report of the General Census of 1891 which stated that the census was carried out in difficult and uncontrollable factors like moonlight guiding the census officials to carry out the exercise, multiple religious ceremonies and festivals affecting the exercise, and cultural, linguistic and religious diversity, and the fact that the census was sometimes conducted by officers who had never set foot in those provinces. Much of the stated accuracy of the census was later contested, and criticised for being grossly simplified, inaccurate, and unreliable, especially in its enumeration of the colonial subject by caste and ethnicity. The Indian National Congress went so far as to declare January 11, 1931, as “Census Boycott Sunday”.
The impact of this enumerative exercise was severe, with several historians arguing that the questionable classifiers, and tabulation attempts, along with the publication of data caused sharp communal divides, and even had a role in shaping religious and ethnic consciousness and relationships in both colonial and post-colonial India. The scientific therefore bled into the cyborg-ian material reality, affecting the relationship between religious groups in both colonial and post-colonial India. Other instances of imperial scientific methods of using colonialised bodies as sites of enumeration are visible in the histories of DNA and fingerprinting, issuance of identity cards, and other technologies of mass identification and surveillance in several post-colonial states.
These impulses of the colonial state to assert and contribute to public fact-making based on what it claims to be objective and scientific knowledge have been borrowed from, and replicated to a large extent by the modern Indian state. The Aadhaar databasing project in modern India represents this state-held faith in the incontrovertible knowledge of the cyborg-ian citizen perfectly. It characterises both the interpolation of data with the human (the cyborg) and also enables the interoperability of this data across multiple databases.
This databasing function of Aadhaar, in fact, was adopted as a policy imperative by the state deliberately to escape the spectre of paper tigers and documents era of the older mode of state and statehood. As such, citizen bodies are not simply marked, but laws have been specifically promulgated to enable database creation, maintenance, management, and the creation of a monolithic labyrinth that keeps connecting dispersed datasets.
In an amendment made to the Aadhaar Authentication for Good Governance Rules, 2020 earlier this year, the government sought to expand Aadhaar authentication to non-state entities, in the interest of good governance, and to promote “ease of living of residents and enabling better access to services for them”. Good governance and ease of living are undefined terms in the law, and have now been transformed into gateways of entry for any prescribed entity to gain access to the database. Despite a Supreme Court of India’s ruling in 2018 prohibiting the use of Aadhaar authentication by non-state actors, amendments in the past few years have been incrementally made to the Aadhaar Act, 2016 and its attendant Rules to increasingly give non-state actors access to the databasing project, altering the socio-technical imaginations of the database and the impact on cyborg-ian citizens.
Shortly afterwards, in August of 2023, the Indian parliament enacted two key pieces of legislation which further expanded the executive’s mandate of enumeration and databasing. The first of these was the Registration of Births and Deaths (Amendment) Act, 2023. In perhaps in its most expansive iteration, it made this database available and linkable to databases maintained by other state authorities such as those relating to population registers, electoral rolls, Aadhaar number, ration card, passport, driving license, property registration, and “such other databases at the National level as may be notified”. This means that dispersed datasets can now be connected into a monolithic whole, and also be made available to a wider set of state authorities.
Further, the “preparation” and “maintenance” of these databases make the Aadhaar-isation of the ‘economy’ logic abundantly evident, turning governance into a mechanistic, and technical endeavour. As citizens are forced to submerge themselves, from cradle to grave in this technical and cyborg-ian enumeration of ‘governance’, efficiency is fully quantified and the task of welfare distribution is reduced to database management. The amended law itself is peppered with this language of technicality – “orally or in writing with signature”, “electronically or otherwise”, with even the ‘womb’ being metamorphosized to a technical component, distinct from the entity of an “unwed mother”.
The law and its language are both envisioned as technical artefacts that seek to enumerate each birth and death, for the larger purpose of maintaining an error-proof register that can be searched, inspected, copied, and compiled for statistical reports, and now, even linked to larger unspecified purposes of the state. The ideal cyborg in this context, therefore, must assist in the maintenance and upkeep of accurate databases.
The second legislative act was the promulgation of the Digital Personal Data Protection Act, 2023. In the introduction of the law without wider public consultation, and passage through the parliament in what can only be called a democratic subterfuge, the position of the cyborg in relation to the State and its overarching powers was made abundantly clear. The law is tremendously expansive in the powers it affords to the executive and the exceptions it carves out for the State.
Seen in the light of the amendments made to the Registration of Births and Deaths Act, 1969, it seems to replicate similar objectives of databasing and enumeration, by allowing the processing of pre-existing personal data (for the state) in a digital form or digitised data from existing databases, registers, and books. It creates exemptions for the law for non-State entities, particularly start-ups, and leaves the extraction and use of personal data open to an unspecified and increasing number of actors. These exemptions for processing of data are even extended to economic logics of ascertaining financial information, and assets and liabilities of persons defaulting on loans and advances taken from financial institutions. These provisions reveal, more acutely than ever, how the implications of enumeration will be felt more keenly by some over others; by those who are poor, financially oppressed, and marginalised than the rich; by some cyborg-ian bodies over others.
The law not only expands the state’s ability for enumeration and databasing but also enables it by weakening the existing safeguards against State abuse. It creates a ‘weak’ regulatory body without provisions for independent functioning, and relegates its most important functions to future executive rule-making. Further, it cleaves open the Right to Information Act, 2005, and exempts the state from any accountability to the public, with respect to the information relating to personal information. In the form and manner in which the law has been heralded, the few existing protections and possibilities for a more robust data protection law seem now more diminished than ever.
Enumeration and databasing of the cyborg therefore have been transformed into an essentialist feature of modern technology law in India. The State’s impulse to database, to hide in the security of this inscription, and to revel in the glory of creationism is evident in all of its recent legislative endeavours.
This piece has assumed that enumeration and databasing in the cyborg-ian context of today serve no larger normative good. This assumption is rooted both in the histories and unfolding stories of severe marginalisation and violence in India. Lives of the enumerated are not just easy to manage within a database, but also easy to discard. You do with them as you would with numbers – view them in binary digits, count, subtract, add, multiplicate, delete. Close attention should be paid to the fact that both the Registration of Births and Deaths Amendment and the Digital PDP Bill, 2023 have been introduced in an environment of extreme brutality and violence, using the Parliament to provide a veneer of democratic functioning.
These legislative acts then not only attempt to detract from what is happening in the country but also manifest a form of state memorialisation. This is reflected abundantly in the language and import of these laws as being pathways to a statistically sound and immutable future for the cyborg. It is important to remember that the State has always played a key role in ‘official memory entrepreneurship’, important for creating a collective story of unity, identity, and belonging. The enumerative State therefore derives power from the ability to control memory and build a generalised narrative of identification and effective governance. The ideal cyborg is expected to be a part of this collective memory, and be able to be chosen out of the pack at any time, for any purpose.
Any attempt to resist this particular notion of the cyborg-ian future is therefore an act of anti-memory. This kind of anti-memory exercise then becomes a way to punctuate the officious and technical language of the state and imbue this form of narrativisation with complexity, and uncertainty. The enumerative state can only be countered with the resistance against the formation of the ideal cyborg, and the ballooning of the database can only be impeded by the complexity of the multitudes, not the simplicity of a 12-digit unique identification number.
Shohini Sengupta is a Ph.D. student at the Faculty of Law & Justice, UNSW, Sydney, and an Associate Professor at the Jindal School of Banking & Finance, India. Her research is on Aadhaar and the consequences of financial citizenship in India. She tweets here.